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Tropical takeover. April 25, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood are on a mission from God. For the past few years, we’ve been trying to add more tropical and semitropical edibles (fruits, herbs, and spices) to our greenhouse collection. (Most of them summer outdoors on our deck to enjoy some fresh air and let beneficial insects and rain take care of any pest problems they might have acquired over winter.)

As with most things plant-related, we’ve had successes and failures. Our lemon grass took off in the in-ground greenhouse bed and is now as large as a miscanthus. Our cardamom, however, hates the cold (55 degrees F.), dry winter greenhouse conditions and is barely hanging on. Our ‘Violetta’ purple artichoke (also in the greenhouse bed) is huge and handsome. But something (still undetermined) ate our new ‘Dwarf Lady Finger’ banana plant, leaves, stem, and roots. (We began to wonder if the entire plant tasted like banana.) Our coffee tree was looking very unhappy by the end of winter—I guess 55 degrees isn’t its idea of a good time, either—but with longer daylength and warmer temperatures, it’s been enjoying a growth spurt. But now it has chlorosis (balanced organic fertilizer and compost tea to the rescue!). And so it goes.

Before yesterday, our tally of tender edibles looked like this. Fruits: 4 fig trees, 1 Persian lime, 1 ‘Pink Lemonade’ variegated lemon. Herbs and spices: 1 lemon grass, 1 lemon-scented geranium (pelargonium, and yes, the leaves and flowers are edible), 1 cardamom, 1 lime leaf, 3 rosemaries (not hardy outdoors here), 1 purple-leaf Thai basil, 2 lemon verbenas, 2 bay trees, 2 pineapple sages, 1 variegated ‘Pesto’ basil, 1 variegated Cuban oregano (plectranthus). Vegetables: 1 ‘Violetta’ purple artichoke, 1 ‘Sweet 100’ cherry tomato, 3 ‘Sungold’ cherry tomatoes (the best). Other edibles: 1 coffee tree, 1 ‘Arbequina’ olive tree.

This may or may not sound like a lot, especially in a 10-by-16-foot greenhouse (the structure is actually 16-by-16, but the north side has a 10-foot wood storage shed and straw bale loft to provide extra insulation and warmth during cold weather.) But remember, these edibles are fighting for space with our orchids, cacti and succulents, cannas, clivias, amaryllis, ornamental salvias, geraniums/pelargoniums, and the bazillion other ornamentals that also are too tender to survive outside over winter, not to mention the greenhouse container water garden and the earthworm composter (which overwinters in there, too). When it’s fully loaded, it tends to resemble L.A. traffic at rush hour without the road rage.

That was before. As of yesterday, another much-anticipated selection of tropical edibles arrived from Logee’s Greenhouses (www.logees.com). Yes, we have some bananas: We got two, another ‘Dwarf Ladyfinger’ and a ‘Cavendish Super Dwarf’, to replace our dear departed. Before you think we’ve totally lost our minds, we’re keeping them in the house this time to protect them from whatever until it’s warm enough to leave them on the deck. By the end of summer, their stems will be tough enough to resist attack when they return to the greenhouse for the winter. But there’s still the question of space. The ‘Cavendish’ grows just 3 feet tall, and ‘Ladyfinger’ gets about 5 to 6 feet, which, again, doesn’t sound too bad given our greenhouse size. But height alone doesn’t take into account the bananas’ huge tropical umbrella of foliage. Making room for two umbrellas is going to take some doing come late fall.

We also got a curry leaf tree (Murraya koenigii), a Key lime, a Palestine sweet lime, and a variegated vanilla orchid. Silence has been lusting after a curry tree—the leaves are as essential to many Indian dishes as lime leaf leaves are to Thai, Vietnamese, and Indonesian cuisine—and our friend Ben has been eager to add a Key lime to our collection, with its promise of Key lime pies and margaritas. We’re both fascinated by the idea of growing our own vanilla, though the vining orchid has to reach about 5 feet or so on a trellis before it will flower, and you have about one second to hand-pollinate those flowers if you want vanilla beans. And we were intrigued by the description of the Palestine sweet lime, an unknown cross that produces fruits that look like limes but are sweet. Yum!!!

The new plants arrived incredibly carefully packed and bursting with vigor. But my, you don’t know small until you’ve seen a 2.5″ pot! (Even the bananas were just in 4″ pots, looking as uncomfortable as Mma Makutsi in her too-small blue shoes.) We knew we’d have to pot everything up right away. Grabbing big pots and a huge bag of organic potting soil, we got to work.

One thing that always amazes our friend Ben is how a bigger pot can make some plants look so much bigger than they did in their original pots. This was true of our bananas, Palestine sweet lime, and vanilla orchid (no doubt the trellis added a stately air to the vanilla vine).

The vanilla offered another challenge, since it came rooted in damp sphagnum moss. We potted it up in a mix of organic potting soil and damp orchid bark/perlite/charcoal*, and are waiting to see how it will adjust to its new growing medium. The poor little curry tree and Key lime were so small that they didn’t benefit from the Alice-in-Wonderland effect, but we know they’re much happier anyway.

Needless to say, we’re looking for some happy harvests to come. We’ll plant a ginger rhizome in the in-ground greenhouse bed as soon as we’ve taken the containers out to the deck. And we have tea, cinnamon, black pepper, and blood orange on our “get these next” list. Too bad we can’t grow date palms here!

We should note before leaving you that some of these tropical crops require a second step before you can use them. It’s not enough to harvest olives, vanilla beans, coffee beans, or tea leaves: They all must be cured before they can be consumed or added to food or made into beverages. But we’re willing to take that extra step and see how our homegrown coffee, tea, olives, and vanilla turn out.

* Orchid growers, here’s a tip for you: If you’ve ever tried to grow an orchid in a mix of orchid bark, perlite, and charcoal—the standard orchid potting mix—you probably know that the whole point of this mix is that it holds moisture around the orchid roots while also allowing water to drain freely out of the pots, imitating the rainforest conditions where many orchids originated. But you also probably know that if you pot an orchid in dry orchid bark mix, it will drain out all the water rather than maintaining moisture in the root zone. Somehow, you have to infuse the bark with water before you use it.

Here’s how we deal with this: We bought an old Crock-Pot for a couple of bucks at a local Goodwill or Salvation Army. We fill the crock with the orchid bark mix, add water, and turn the Crock-Pot on low. We leave it to cook all day, and voila! Totally saturated bark mix. The mix stays saturated, too, so you can use what you need and leave the rest in the crock until you need it. Works like a charm!



1. Daphne - April 26, 2010

I’m always amazed at how many tender plants you have there. I tend to kill my potted plants so avoid them (well except my aloe, which I swear is unkillable).

We have our share of casualties, too, Daphne, but tend to find that most of our plants hang on bravely through the grim winter months, then really flourish on the deck during the growing season. (It’s much easier to water them on the deck, too!) Maybe the good months give them the fortitude to survive the cold, dry (gulp) months…

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